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Could Your Ordinary Heartburn be a More Serious Problem?

Personal Health

By Nancy Johnston Hall

You’ve probably had heartburn. It’s that bothersome, unpleasant feeling we all get from time to time after a good meal. Heartburn usually feels like a burning in the chest or throat. Sometimes you can taste stomach fluid in the back of your mouth. If this happens only occasionally, it’s probably nothing more serious than heartburn. It’s still good to mention your symptoms to your doctor. Heartburn can usually be treated with over-the-counter medications.

If these symptoms happen more than twice a week or upset your daily life, you may have GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). GERD happens when a muscle at the end of your food pipe (esophagus) doesn’t close properly. Stomach acid leaks back into the food pipe and irritates it. This constant backwash of acid can irritate the lining of your food pipe, causing it to become inflamed. Over time, the acid can erode the lining of the food pipe. GERD can also cause a dry cough, asthma symptoms, or even trouble swallowing.

If you have heartburn or any of these other symptoms more than twice a week, see your doctor. If it isn’t treated, GERD can lead to more serious health problems. Treatment may include prescription-strength medications similar to the over-the-counter meds meant for less serious problems.

Lifestyle changes that can help

The Mexican tradition of eating the biggest meal in the afternoon and a smaller meal or snack in the evening is perfect for someone with GERD. You never want to go to bed with a full stomach. Gravity takes over as you lie down flat and your food tube takes the punishment as stomach acid seeps up. So keep your stomach relatively empty towards bedtime.

My father, who had suffered from GERD for years, found real help from putting a wedge under the head of his mattress so that he was raised from the waist up when he slept. He also reluctantly gave up his “happy hour” Scotch, which aggravated his symptoms even several hours later. The trade-off was tough but worth it, he decided.

Lifestyle changes you can take that may lessen the symptoms of heartburn and GERD are:

Stay away from foods that cause you discomfort. The following foods have been found to cause reflux in some people: chocolate, peppermint, spearmint, tomatoes, coffee or strong tea, citrus juices, carbonated beverages, fatty and fried foods, and spicy foods.

Eat smaller meals.

Include protein in your meals to help increase the pressure of the muscle between the esophagus and the stomach and help prevent reflux. Examples of food containing protein are lean meats, poultry, fish, and low-fat dairy foods.

Eat an early evening meal and don’t snack close to bedtime.

Avoid alcohol.

Lose weight.

Wear loose-fitting clothes, especially around your waist.

Avoid smoking immediately after meals. Better yet, quit completely.

Don’t lie down after a meal. Wait at least three hours.

Raise the head of your bed. One way is to place wood or cement blocks under the feet at the head of your bed to raise it at least six to nine inches. Or you can place a wedge between your mattress and box spring to raise your head from the waist up. You can buy a wedge at many drugstores or a medical supply store. Raising your head with extra pillows doesn’t work.

Nancy Johnston Hall is a retired health writer with nearly 40 years of experience. She has a master’s degree in medical journalism. Last year Nancy and her husband became part-time residents of San Miguel.


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